The Common Good
September-October 1997

The Power of an idea

by Joe Nangle | September-October 1997

Paulo Freire's liberating legacy.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who died last spring in Sao Paulo at 76, proved again the enormous power of an idea. Beginning with the conviction that there is no such thing as neutral education, he taught reading and writing to illiterate Brazilian peasants using a method he called conscientizacao, which poorly translated means consciousness raising.

Trying to explain Freire’s pedagogy in abstract terms is in some ways a violation of its basic principle. Only concrete examples bring to life the power of his breakthrough concept.

Picture, then, the classroom of a quality parochial school in a Third World city. Poor parents, who sacrifice to place their children in the school, gather for an evening session of conscientizacao. They are presented with a real life case study: What do they think of a worker who rejected a promotion to the management side of his factory because the new position would have removed him from his working-class roots?

The parents understand the stakes involved in the case—for that worker, loyalty to class meant giving up individual advancement. For these parents, who have sacrificed to keep their children in this fine school, their first instinct is to consider the worker foolish for returning to the factory floor.

Gradually, however, without prompting from the "instructor," second thoughts creep over the group as they ponder the merits of class loyalty. Finally, one of the parents timidly suggests that the worker who abandoned advancement was a "hero to their class." The rest slowly agree. A new grasp of reality has taken hold in their minds; they have "conscientized" themselves. The teacher served as catalyst, posing the question but never imposing the answer. The process is quintessentially Freirian.

The parents’ "raised consciousness" will reach far. A sense of the common good now impels these oppressed folk to struggle in solidarity with their own and to overthrow the social barriers placed in their way. Their conscientizacao that evening has produced true radicals.

PAULO FREIRE CAME by his method—and his unshakable belief in the capacity of unlettered peasants to analyze reality—as a result of his own experience. Born into a middle-class Brazilian family, he came to know extreme poverty when his parents lost everything in the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s.

Freire found that sharing the life of the poor gave him an understanding of their "culture of silence." From there it was an easy step for him to see formal education as serving to integrate the poor into a world of alienation. The "banking" concept of education—teacher imparts facts, students receive them—left the poor without a critical analysis of their lives, something which Freire set out to change.

His literacy programs in Brazil’s impoverished northeast proved such a threat to the military government installed in a 1964 coup that Freire was jailed for two months and then "invited" to leave the country. A seminal 1973 book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, gave Freire worldwide notoriety, as did literacy work for UNESCO and the World Council of Churches. However, the grassroots application of his "conscientizing" approach to reading and writing in underdeveloped areas of the world stands as Freire’s lasting legacy.

Little noted in Freire’s obituaries is the impact he had on Latin American liberation theology. Taking their cue from Freire’s insights, the early liberationists saw that, like all education, instruction in the faith can either alienate or free. They coined the phrase "conscientizing evangelization" to describe the pastoral task of gospel ministers called to work among the marginalized, and insisted on a gospel pedagogy that questions any structures that maintain the unjust status quo.

Freire and his method could yet save education in the industrialized world. The "banking" concept of instruction he found so alienating continues apace here, resulting in domesticated, passive students and teachers content with society as it is. Where are the Paulo Freires of the Northern Hemisphere ready to stir up "conscientization" in the young minds being wasted here?

JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., executive director of Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C., lived for 14 years in South America.

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